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Are You Hiding Your Need to Be Needed?

Connie Neal

Janis was a top-notch minister. After being on staff for two years, her ministry had grown from 35 to 150 kids. She led an activity every day of the week. Her ministry was booming. The church needed her. The kids needed her. And what's more, she needed the feeling she got from being needed.

Janis could not not minister to other people's kids. In fact, when her own 5-year-old daughter asked her if she loved the other kids more than her, Janis couldn't really answer.

Janis recalls, "At that point, I was addicted. I was hooked. Because my identity was 'I'm out to save kids.' That was who I was. It wasn't just something I did; it was what gave me self-worth."

Janis needed her ministry to make her feel that her life had meaning. She was driven to ministry out of the void inside her.

Janis was codependent.

The term "codependent" has been bandied around a lot in the last few years. What does it mean? How can you know if you're codependent? And if you are, what should you do about it?

First, take this simple test.

  • Do you struggle with low self-esteem even though you overachieve?
  • Do you feel comfortable being needed but quite uncomfortable admitting your needs and seeking support for yourself?
  • Do you cover up embarrassing circumstances or deny real problems that threaten to mar your image?
  • Do you neglect your personal life as though it didn't matter or even exist?
  • Do you often say yes when you wish you could say no?
  • Do you fear that if you let go of control and stop doing more than enough, the people you love will leave you?
  • Do you give beyond the call of duty but often feel taken for granted and used?
  • Do you feel responsible for others when they don't take responsibility for themselves?
  • Are you, or were you as a child, in a relationship with someone whose out-of-control behavior negatively affected your life?
  • Do you see yourself as being on a higher spiritual plane than most people?
  • Are there parts of your life or past you avoid or try to keep hidden?
  • At work, do you feel compelled to do more than is called for in your assigned job description?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you may be codependent.

The term "codependent" was originally coined to define those whose involvement with an alcoholic led them to react in certain ways. In Co-Dependent No More, Melody Beattie writes, "A codependent person is one who has let another person's behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person's behavior."

Rich Buhler, a noted radio personality, broadens the definition of codependency to include, "Losing yourself in the needs of others." The first definition focuses on the cause, the second on the effect.

Codependency is best understood in the context of dysfunctional family systems. Family members function in relationship roles. If one person fails to fulfill his or her role, the other members accommodate this lack by taking on roles that balance things out. When someone is out of control within a family, everyone reacts.

This out-of-control behavior can be any kind of addiction or compulsion, abusive behavior, mental illness, sometimes even a physical handicap or disability. Those who react by trying to cover up, appease, rescue or control the one who is out of control, play a codependent role. This role may become the basis of their self-image and identity. They may see themselves as the helper, rescuer, hero, the one who holds things together in a crisis.

People with unresolved codependency issues will be attracted to people and positions where they can play their familiar role. Children's ministry is a great place for "heroes" to find their niche. A good children's minister must maintain control and is frequently needed to rescue or help families in crisis.

Codependents are compelled to overachieve just to feel acceptable. From the outside, they appear downright saintly. Doing great things for God or pushing themselves beyond measure can help fend off the voice within saying "you just don't measure up." This also earns them the approval they need to feel secure. What senior pastor wouldn't appreciate having a children's minister who is self-motivated and never comfortable with anything less than excellence?

Codependents often focus on the problems and needs of others to distance themselves from painful issues in their own lives. Keeping busy in ministry is a great escape. There's constant activity-plans to make; volunteers to recruit, train and oversee; events to coordinate; and always someone nearby with problems more pressing than the pain they're avoiding.

So, you may be wondering, how can I tell the difference between unhealthy codependent behavior and healthy nurturing or Christlike service? Here are some clues: The difference is not in how you behave, but rather in how well you're able to set boundaries that allow you to care for yourself and others. If you could stop ministering tomorrow and remain secure in God's love, that's healthy. If ministry is your life and you feel you're nothing without doing something for God, there's a problem.

Jesus loves the little children, ALL the little children of the world...including the hurt little child who may be living within you. Admitting you're codependent doesn't mean you need to leave children's ministry and stop rescuing others or taking care of the children in your ministry. It simply means you need to allow the Lord to heal the pain of your past so your children's ministry includes ministering to God's child living within you, as well as the other children you reach.

If you attend to the unresolved pain of your past, you'll be free to give out of abundance rather than out of a sense of being driven. If you feel you may be codependent, get help from the resources in the "Where to Get Help" box.

Connie Neal is author of Your 30-Day Journey to Power Over Codependency.

Turn to these resources to get help with your codependent issues:

*Your 30-Day Journey to Power Over Codependency by C.W. Neal, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Box 141000, Nashville, TN 37214-1000, 800-251-4000.
*Co-Dependent No More by Melody Beattie, HarperCollins Publishers, Box 588, Dunmore, PA 18512, 800-331-3761.
*New Life Treatment Centers 800-227-LIFE.
*Support groups should be people who care for you, understand the issues you're dealing with, share your values and are willing to press their lives into yours in an affirming way. Some support groups are established with specific themes, such as Adult Children of Alcoholics, Incest Survivors, Codependents Anonymous and Al-Anon. Consult your human services directory at your local library for support groups in your area.

Copyright© Group Publishing, Inc. / Children's Ministry Magazine

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